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Don’t waste Hunter Dozier at first base

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Keep the corner hot

Texas Rangers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Remember when I used to be the biggest Hunter Dozier advocate on the internet? Ah, good times. I haven’t written anything about him in what seems like years, but that is all changing right as you read these words.

While the ongoing will-they/won’t-they romantic relationship between Eric Hosmer and the Royals continues to last for way too many seasons, there is a real possibility that the Royals start the 2018 season without a defined, true first basemen. One name being given thought at first base is Hunter Dozier:

Notably as well, the Royals don’t have a defined third baseman either, as Mike Moustakas remains a free agent and reports say the two are likely to separated.

The Royals internal options are third are...something. It looks like the Royals will have to decide between Cheslor Cuthbert, Hunter Dozier, Ramon Torres, Raul Mondesi I suppose, and Ryan Goins perhaps. Not exactly an inspiring list of candidates but they are who they are.

The Royals candidates for first base might as bleak, with the decision being between the aforementioned Dozier and Cuthbert, alongside Samir Duenez, and Ryan O’Hearn (who should be playing there). The issue being here that Dozier is being given strong consideration (per reports) as being the de facto winner for first base if Hosmer doesn’t re-sign.

Dozier should be the teams starting third baseman. Full stop.

The real decision is whether Dozier or Cuthbert should be the starting third baseman, and it seems the Royals will default to Cuthbert as that option. Really it should be Dozier.

Hitting

While Cuthbert isn’t a good hitter, he has more experience hitting major league pitching and projects to be a better hitter than Dozier:

Cuthbert projects to be a not-insignificant amount better than Dozier offensively, beating him by 23 points of wRC+. Part of that is because Cuthbert has ~700 plate appearances in the majors under his belt, so projecting him is a bit easier and prone to less error bars and deviation.

If we accept the projection that Cuthbert is a better hitter, then that means his time should be at first base rather than third. The hurdle rate offensively for first basemen is a lot higher than third base. Over the past four years, third basemen have averaged ~102 wRC+ while first baseman have averaged ~110 wRC+. If Dozier were to actually post a 73 wRC+, that would be more tolerable at the lower hitting spectrum position than the one needed at 1B (assuming both Dozier and Cuthbert play at the same time).

Defense

We’ve had almost 1,500 innings of Cuthbert at third base in the major league level and I think we can come to a conclusion: he’s a below average defender at the hot corner. He may even be borderline terrible.

Cuthbert posted a -12 DRS when he filled in for Moustakas in 2016, and was worth -1 DRS in the ~200 innings he played there in 2017.

Over the past two years, Cuthbert has been at the bottom of the league when it comes to turning routine plays (per Inside Edge) while also struggling to make the “likely” plays too:

This isn’t exactly a new revelation either, as Cuthbert struggled defensively in the minors too (per Clay Davenport Translations):

2015 AAA: -2

2014 AA: -6

2013 A+: -6

2012 A+: -18

Dozier on the other hand isn’t a stellar defender either (als per Davenport):

2016 AAA: -8

2015 AA: -4

2014 A+: -7

Minor league defensive numbers are murky water, and have to be taken with a grain or two of salt. Steamer though projects Dozier to be roughly an average defender at 3B against Cuthbert as a -9.7 defender.

So the questions are: do you buy the MLB data and projection we have for Cuthbert and say he’s a bad defender? Do you buy that Dozier would be a roughly average defender, likely based on the insufficient amount of data skewing him towards the average?

Dozier was certainly the better defensive prospect coming up:

Defensively, Dozier is a good athlete with a strong arm (his fastball creeped into the low-90s in his rare college relief outings) and, while he was a college shortstop, looked likely to stick at third base in pro ball. He hasn’t polished things up there as much as scouts would like and began seeing time at first base and in both corner-outfield spots this year. He played right field exclusively in the big leagues.

— Eric Longenhagen, 2017 Royals top prospect list

What also remained true is that Cuthbert has a strong arm but little mobility, making him below-average at the hot corner, and his move to first base last summer was discouraging because his bat isn’t loud enough to carry him there.

- 2015 Baseball Prospectus Annual

While Dozier isn’t likely to be Manny Machado, I buy into the idea that he’s an average to fringe average defender at third, and I certainly think his arm is better than Cuthbert’s. I also buy into the idea that Cuthbert is a very bad defender at third, something I’ve been thinking for awhile now:

I just don’t see it with Cuthbert. I never have. There is some power but he is not good enough to play third base and the arm is wasted at first base, and his power is not good enough at that position. I’m happy to be wrong.

2016 Top 60

Cuthbert is without a defensive position though partially due to profiles than skill. He doesn’t have the defensive glove for third base, but could play first average-ish. Of course being a 1B only player means you have to hit for power and Cuthbert won’t due to his swing and inconsistencies. So he’s not good enough defensively for third and not good enough offensively for first.

2015 Top 30

When it comes down to it, Dozier likely has the higher ceiling and is the better defender at 3B. He should be the everyday third baseman next year. Moving him to first just puts too much pressure on his bat and there is no real reason to put him there anyways. If I held the lineup card pencil, I’d roll with Dozier at third and O’Hearn at first for all of 2018, regardless of any bumps along the way. We know what Cuthbert is, a replacement level-ish player whose main contribution just comes from not being truly bad at everything and not being hurt.

Dozier may not bring superstar level upside, but he’s the better long term piece than Cuthbert and should be given priority at the higher position, not being wasted at first (though he could also play the outfield - which is still better than first).